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Bombed, Booby-Trapped and Gripped by Fear: Welcome to Raqqa
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Cascades of broken concrete line the streets of Raqqa. Few people are about and those who are look crushed and dispirited. An 80-year-old woman who says her name is Islim is scrabbling in the debris looking for scraps of metal and plastic to sell. She explains that she is trying to look after the wife and daughter of one of her sons who was killed by a mine.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US air and artillery strikes, captured Raqqa from Isis on 20 October last year after a four-month siege. The destruction is apocalyptic. Houses, hospitals, bridges, schools and factories are gone, turned into heaps of broken masonry. There is no electricity and little water.

“After the war we were at zero and we are still at zero,” says Dr Saddam al-Hawidy. He complains that foreign aid organisations come and look at the ruins of the city, but then leave and are never seen again. The final siege was only the devastating culmination of years of degradation that predates Isis rule. When the much-hated government rule collapsed there was nothing to put in its place. “My father died because the kidney dialysis unit in a local hospital was hit in a Syrian government air strike in 2015,” Dr Hawidy said.

A few districts escaped the worst of the bombing by the coalition, but none are unscathed. Inside the old walled city, we meet Ahmed Mousaqi, a middle-aged former building worker specialising in ceramics, who complains about the high price of buying a minimal amount of electricity from a private generator. He says he survived the siege, though Isis kept herding him and other civilians held as hostages from building to building.

His brother Ahmed, a motorcycle mechanic, was not so lucky. “Isis fighters took over part of his house and it was hit by an air strike,” he says. “He was killed along with five members of his family.” He adds there is little aid available for people like him because as soon as you say you are from Raqqa “they think you belong to Isis”.

Some 150,000 people have returned to Raqqa, though they are not very visible on the streets. A few shops have reopened but there not many customers and business is slow. Beside an ancient ruin called “The Ladies’ Castle”, Basil Amar as-Sawas has a shop selling doors, some of which he makes himself, while others he buys from people whose houses have been badly damaged but they have been able to salvage some of the fittings.

He says there is little money around and those who have any are reluctant to spend it while the situation remains so uncertain. Some people whose houses have survived “are selling them to businessmen because they need the money”. He has two small children below school age but for other people the absence of schools – mostly destroyed or badly damaged – is another disincentive for thinking of a return to Raqqa.

Another danger faces those whose homes were not hit in the battles: Isis was notorious for its copious use of mines and booby-traps. Its fighters specialised in placing well-concealed bombs in the homes of people known to oppose their organisation, and who had fled the city, but were likely to return when the siege was over. One member of the local council was killed when he impatiently went home before the limited demining operation had cleared his house. A reason why so little aid is distributed is the difficulty of finding distribution points for food and medicine that have been declared safe. Sarbast Hassan, an electrical technician working to restore the electricity supply, says that “we can’t even work in the city because of the mines”.

There is an extra charge of fear percolating everywhere in Raqqa that makes it different from the many other Syrian cities ravaged by war since 2011. It stems primarily from the three-and-a-half years of sadistic and pitiless Isis rule which has left everybody in the city traumatised. “Daesh is in our hearts and minds,” says Abdel Salaam, who is in charge of social affairs for the council. “Five-year-old children have seen women stoned to death and heads chopped off and put on spikes in the city centre.” Others speak of sons who killed their and fathers who did the same to their sons. Some of these atrocity stories may be exaggerated but, given the Isis cult of cruelty, many of them are likely to be all too true.

The memory of Isis terror will never go away and is accompanied by a more concrete fear that some of the movement have survived and are reorganising. Commander Masloum, one of four SDF field commanders in charge of security in Raqqa, dismisses this as an exaggerated rumour and says that there have been no recent Isis attacks in the city. He had investigated reports of “sleeper cells” but so far these had turned out to be untrue. Even so, security is tight and a curfew begins at 5 pm after which everybody must be off the streets. The roads leading to the city have checkpoints every few miles manned by locally recruited security forces.

In other Syrian cities bombed or shelled to the point of oblivion there is at least one district that has survived intact. This is the case even in Mosul in Iraq, though much of it was pounded into rubble. But in Raqqa the damage and the demoralisation are all pervasive. When something does work, such as a single traffic light, the only one to do so in the city, people express surprise.

Reminders of the grim rule of Isis are everywhere. The tops of the pointed metal railing surrounding the al-Naeem Roundabout are bent outwards because that is where severed heads were put on display. A couple of hundred yards away is what looks like a square manhole which is the entrance into an elaborate system of tunnels which Isis dug under Raqqa.


The horrendous past of the city has been succeeded by the prospect of a dangerous and uncertain future. “People here are frightened of everybody: Isis, Kurds and the Assad regime,” says a local observer. They may prefer the Kurdish-led SDF to Isis, but the choice between the Kurds and the Syrian government is more difficult to make. “They know that the Assad regime will be more merciless towards anybody who had dealings with Isis, though they may just have been selling them food or other goods,” says one frequent visitor to the city. “On the other hand, they have never liked the Kurds and at least the Assad regime is Arab like them.” Like most Syrians, the people of Raqqa are faced with a choice of evils – and nobody knows more about what evil rulers are capable of doing than they are.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria 
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  1. Raqqa was so loyal to the so-called Assad regime (the legitimate government of Syria) that Assad offered prayers in the main mosque well after the so called revolution started in Syria. I have some, let’s say, doubts about the people fearing the return of the Syrian government rule.

  2. With an American presence still in and around Raqqa, a resident there would be foolish not to ascribe any damage to ‘the regime’ rather than the liberators. Are people being allowed to leave for Damascus?

  3. Funny; I see President Bashar al-Assad walking in crowds, driving around, and nobody kills this “butcher”? I strangely saw the same with Pres. S. Hussein and Pres. M. Gaddafi. No security, yet they were “evil”. Meanwhile, someone looks cross-eyed at Pres. Bush, Clinton, Obama, or Trump and they get tossed in the klink forever and a day. Pres. V. Putin KNOWS he’s got a bull’s-eye painted square on his back, so he protects himself. Pres. D. Trump knows there’s 80 million nuts out there who’d do him in, so likewise. Yet Assad walks around, amidst his people (that he kills just cuz he enjoys it). And nobody POPS this asshole, if that’s what he is, considering how awash the country is in WEAPONS? Remarkable. The killer eye-doctor. Hu-fuckin’-rah!

    Has anyone watched the same videos I’ve seen? He caresses their faces; they kiss and hug him and his wife. I have never before seen such kindness. I will cry for him as I cried for Chavez and Robert Parry. I will NOT cry for this asshole author. When ISIS gets him, I’ll dance. Lying git.

  4. Tenet says:

    From The Independent, hence the propaganda against the Syrian government. “The much-hated government rule collapsed”. When you are politically correct you don’t have to prove anything, just say that Israel’s targets are “much-hated” and it will be published.

    Read @partisangirl in Twitter to see what the Kurds have been doing in Syria and Iraq, which you never get to hear. “The Assad regime!!!” The Syrian government was deliberately destroyed by the U.S. by Bush sanctioning Syria in 2004 with the “Syrian Accountability Act,” forbidding their oil exports which their economy was completely dependent on, and forbidding imports and exports to and from the U.S., which pressure on European governments to do the same. Obama sanctioned Syria in 2011 to cripple them further.

    Years of drought had ruined harvests, and in the 2000s Kurds from the north-east, together with Sunnis from Iraq, moved to Syria’s cities in the west where they started protesting “for jobs”. Knowing how such protests had turned violent under his father’s governance, Assad ordered the military to fire on these mostly non-Syrian demonstrators. It is too bad that he did it in hindsight, but it wasn’t like he did it without reason. But after that the Sunni Saudis, Qataris and Turks, with Israel’s and therefore Washington’s approval, could arm the Sunni Iraqis and some Syrian traitors joining them. The goal was to kill Shias, as the Shia majority had won the elections in Iraq, taking away the privileged Sunni position. Israel approved, as the Alawites – a Shia off-shoot, but not particularly religious at all – stood up for the Christian and Sunni Palestinians.

    Israel’s side in Syria would, notably, make a point of bombing Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus with artillery. Israel’s side being ISIS, which also attacks Hamas in Palestine with the few traitors there who have joined ISIS and who refuse to accept an independent Palestinian state, accepting only ISIS rule. Almost as if someone was paying them….

    “The much-hated government” – after sanctions crippling their oil industry, and with Sunnis – mostly immigrants – waging their sectarian war, this comment is used to describe the Sunni hatred? Good propaganda there.

  5. Tenet says:

    Now, speaking of the Kurds, which The Independent will of course never write about other than as to present them as victims or “great warriors” (when the U.S. bombs cities to dust in their way, but this artice goes to great lengths to pretend that Syria’s government is as complicit in the bombing of Raqqa as the U.S., which carried out 99% of it).

    Again, read @partisangirl on Twitter, and also @sahouraxo to see what they have been doing. Why these people in Raqqa, whose city was destroyed by the US/Kurdish side, would not particularly like what they have been up to. Expelling Arabs from towns they invade with U.S. taxpayers’ paying for it. Forcing school children to speak Kurdish. The protests against this are never seen on TV. The Kurds are only 2 million of Syria’s 22 million, occupying only a small territory before the war but now having invaded 25% of the land with U.S. aid. They finance themselves by smuggling drugs to Europe, and kidnapping and extorting Turkish businessmen, killing them and blowing up their cars to terrorize neighborhoods when they don’t pay.

    The Kurd invaders take over northern Syria where vast water supplies are located. This of course suits Washington perfectly – deprive the Syrian people of water. This will force the Syrian government to more war where they can be presented as “aggressors”. Israel wants Syria destroyed for their support of the Palestinians, and fanatical religious parties in the Israeli government coalition dream of expanding into Syria and must be appeased by Likud. The Kurds eagerly make themselves puppets of Israel, throwing their full, greedy support behind Israel’s government, and approving of what is done to the Palestinians.

    The Kurds hope to be the “new Israelis” in the Middle East – with U.S. bombs and money propping them up as they take more land. Look how they act on Twitter, laughing at Syrians and mocking them for losing their land. “It’s our land now buh-bye, lol you can cry now! We’ll kill you if you try to come back!” sounding like BLM leftists on Twitter spewing hatred against Whites.

    The Kurds are both Marxists and Islamists, the ones who practice female genital mutilation in Arab countries. Fools see propaganda pictures in neocon magazines of Kurdish women with blond hair dressed in uniform: “Look, Kurds are white! I read that their language is Ary…oops, Indo-European!” Kurds look exactly like Arabs, as they have mixed with Arabs over thousands of years. But there are some blond Arabs, and therefore some blond Kurds.

    Neocon loyals will of course not know this. Nor will they question why women are dressed up in uniforms and paraded before cameras. Speaking of which, in the Syrian army there are women who actually serve, but they are never shown in U.S. media.

    Nor will U.S. media reveal that the Kurds disarmed the Yazidis in Iraq. Then didn’t tell them that ISIS was coming. This was done so that ISIS would kill them all, and enslave the women, so the Kurds could later tell the land. The media will only say that “some Yazidis sought refuge in Kurdish areas,” which is the most laughable lie of omission in the entire war, aside from ignoring U.S. sanctions destroying Syria. I’m sure some Yazidis could go to Kurd territory, and some Kurd peasants unconnected to politics might even agree to trade with them, taking their most valuable possessions in exchange for some bread.

    Kurds are nomads who take land cultivated by others. In Europe, Kurds look and act exactly the same as Arabs. For the “Muslims hate our freedom!!!” crowd, ordinary crimes committed by Middle Easterners are of course irrelevant, as they are only interested in the terrorist acts they see on TV – totally about religious war of course, not what Western regimes have done to the M.E. nations that criticize Israel. Mentioning street crimes committed by the vast majority of Arabs, Turks and Kurds who are not religious other than on Ramadan is irrelevant to neocon lovers. But not to those of us who are forced to live with it. And who see exactly what Kurds are doing. American love for these invaders – in Syria as well as in Europe – is disgusting.

  6. Bianca says:

    This is a disgrace. Raqqa has been desttoyed, bodies are still in rubble and US proudly declaed that no demining will be done. This article makes it look like it is nobody”s fault — except ISIS and Syrian government. And dwells on ISIS attrocities, to make it easier to swallow the total devastation and subsequent brutal Kurdish occupation. By comparison, when Aleppo was liberated, demining was done in weeks, bus service and train service restored in many parts of the city, field medical linics opened to treat thousands whose illnesses and injuries were neglected for years. Food, basic supplies of matresses, blankets, hygene producfs, are continuously supplied, water and electricity restored, and clearing reconstruction started.

    The author had even managed to put the blame on the person who impetuously entered his mined home, and died. Then waffled something about partial demining. Limited? And who exactly performed it.
    How about some straight speaking. Kurds are terrorising this Arab town, hoping they will leave, and have it later populated by Kurds. Last Seltember in bombed out town Kurds opened schools with Kurdish language included. But as always, no news that Raqqa has been plastered by Assad pictures and a week ago, they formed a council to irganize liberation from Kurds.
    Hopefully, this is now doable as Kurds do not have the manpower to control the city, and now that they are worried about Turkey’z attack on their statehood, Kurds are abandoning all far flung losts and rushing to protect their own centers.

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